Illustration: Craig Stephens
by James V. Wertsch
by James V. Wertsch

US coronavirus lawsuits pick at the scabs of China’s ‘century of humiliation’

  • The emotional scars of the opium wars and bullying by colonial powers resonate among ordinary Chinese in a way the West does not fully appreciate
  • The lawsuits, which have little hope of succeeding in a US court but are filed anyway for domestic political reasons, are a dangerous provocation
In April, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against China for alleged acts of irresponsibility over the Covid-19 pandemic. He charged that Chinese officials “are responsible for the enormous death, suffering and economic losses they inflicted on the world, including Missourians”.
Since then, many other lawsuits, including class actions that would represent thousands of people and businesses, have been filed in places like California and Florida. None of these suits stands much chance of moving forward in US courts due to the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976, which places strong barriers against suing a foreign state.

So why are these suits being filed? Largely for domestic political reasons. They are coming in a US election year, and conservative politicians want to be seen as tough on China, in part to divert attention away from the deplorable failure of the Trump administration in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic in the US.

Regardless of their motives, those filing these suits may be starting a much bigger fight than they are bargaining for, in part because they do not appreciate how their actions appear through the lens of Chinese national memory.

Most Americans did not know anything about the ‘century of humiliation’ narrative, much less its emotional power
The sharp reaction in China to demands for reparations reflects a deeply felt national narrative about the “century of humiliation”. It is a century that began with the opium wars in the 1800s and lasted up to the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.

For decades during this period, China was forced to accept massive amounts of opium as payment for silk and other exports, and its vehement objections were ignored as Western powers and Japan carved up and occupied its territory.

The People’s Republic authorities have pursued top-down efforts to create an official memory of these events, to be sure, but the century of humiliation narrative is not just some artificially implanted idea that would disappear if government control were lifted.


Instead, its roots run much deeper in the mental habits of the nation. These narrative habits grew out of a painful historical record of how Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States went out of their way to humiliate China as they carved up its territory. Japan was especially brutal in its decades-long occupation.

Like the mental habits that shape national memory everywhere, however, Chinese accounts of the “century of humiliation” do not just reflect the objective historical record. Instead, they have taken on a life of their own.

Chinese soccer fans demonstrate outside the Workers’ Stadium in Beijing after Japan beat China 3-1 in the Asian Cup final in August 2004. In the run-up to the potentially explosive game, Beijing had pleaded with Chinese fans to keep calm as it deployed thousands of police to keep the peace on the day of the match. Photo: Reuters

A striking object lesson about this can be seen in the aftermath of the 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. In May of that year, B-2 stealth bombers hit what was thought to be a Serbian weapons storehouse, but was instead the Chinese embassy. The targeting error, which was traced to an inexcusable mistake by the CIA, ended up killing three Chinese nationals and injuring others.

Equally seriously, it was an attack on the sovereign territory of an embassy, something Americans can appreciate by recalling the traumatic breach of international trust they experienced with the hostile takeover of the US embassy in Iran in 1979.

What was most striking about the Chinese response in 1999 was not the official reaction. It was the outburst of massive protest in cities across the country. Tens of thousands of students and citizens turned out almost immediately in highly emotional demonstrations, which came close to getting completely out of hand.

Photographed from inside the American embassy, US marines survey the damage, in Beijing on May 17, after four days of violent demonstrations saw thousands of angry Chinese pelt the embassy with rocks, bottles, molotov cocktails and shoes. Photo: AFP

The bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade left US president Bill Clinton aghast and dismayed, and he quickly responded by apologising to China and offering compensation to the victims. But many, indeed most Chinese, refused to believe the bombing was accidental – and continue to do so to this day.


Americans generally had no idea that the outrage in China over such an incident could be so massive and found it hard to believe that Chinese citizens had jumped to the conclusion that the bombing was an intentional attack intended to remind them who is boss – in other words, to humiliate them once again.

Anger brews in China as tariff threats meet embassy bombing anniversary

They may have found the Chinese reaction puzzling and even paranoid, but most Americans didn’t know anything about the “century of humiliation” narrative, much less its emotional power.


The conclusions to be drawn from 1999 apply more than ever in today’s setting of distrust between China and the US. As China continues its global ascent, it is reasonable to push it to become more open and transparent about its actions and to call out its failures to live up to the responsibilities of a world power.

Part of the honest feedback that Americans can provide is that we know all too well what it is to be criticised as a superpower. A mature China should get used to this as part of its new status.


But the immediate point is that the American lawsuits over Covid-19 are being filed in a context already fraught by the pandemic, and they amount to needless provocation. It is a time when the world needs cooperation, not unnecessary friction. Such provocations are only likely to produce an emotional outburst of nationalism in China, especially among young people.

The ensuing downward spiral in US-China relations would make everyone a loser in a dangerous game that might no longer be controlled by anyone.

James V. Wertsch is David R. Francis distinguished professor and director emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St Louis. He teaches courses in anthropology and international and area studies

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